The USS Tang was on a winning streak. Once she fired her one remaining torpedo, she could head home to bask in glory—if everything went as planned.
by Alex Kershaw
The USS Tang (SS-306) had things more important than luck on her side as she slid down the ways at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard in August 1943. She was a Balao-class sub—sturdy but flexible, fast, deep-diving, and well armed. Perhaps even more significant, she was destined to sail under Lieutenant Commander Richard H. O’Kane. Aboard Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton’s high-scoring USS Wahoo (SS-238), Dick O’Kane had proven himself a gifted submariner, honing his skills while serving as executive officer. In January 1944, just before O’Kane took the Tang out of Pearl Harbor on her first combat patrol, news arrived that the Wahoo had vanished with all hands. The Tang would take up Wahoo’s mantle as the dominant American shark in Japanese shipping lanes.
Named after a tropical fish with a sharp spike near its tail, the Tang was a big fish with a big sting. She was nearly 312 feet long and about 27 feet wide at the beam. Four powerful diesels made electricity that propelled her at more than 20 knots on the surface and more than 8 submerged. Tang carried two dozen Mark 18 electric torpedoes, which she fired from six forward tubes and four aft. She was also armed with a .25- caliber deck gun and four machine guns.
By September 24, 1944, when the Tang left Pearl Harbor on her fifth patrol, with 87 men aboard, she had already sunk 17 Japanese ships and rescued 22 downed US airmen. In the excerpt below, we join the Tang and her captain and crew on October 22 in the Formosa Strait between Formosa and mainland China.
Dick O’Kane lay in his bunk, listening to the intercom. Suddenly, the duty chief’s messenger burst into his cabin. “We’ve got another convoy, captain!” said the excited messenger. “The chief says it’s the best one since the Yellow Sea.” It was well after dark on October 22, 1944, when O’Kane began to track convoy U-03, which comprised six ships, two of them well-armed destroyers, the Tsuga and Hasu. O’Kane considered his options. He would rather not have to penetrate the escort screen on the surface at night, but if he waited, the convoy would reach shallower water.
Howard Walker [a steward’s mate, and one of only two African Americans aboard the Tang] handed O’Kane a fresh cup of coffee, and O’Kane began his approach. It was around midnight when one of the Japanese escorts left the convoy to make a search. O’Kane seized his moment, ordering two-thirds speed. By 1:30 A.M. the Tang was poised to strike. In the conning tower, Executive Officer Frank Springer reported that all forward torpedo tubes were open. O’Kane peered through the periscope. He had a large tanker right where he wanted it….
“Constant bearing—mark!” ordered O’Kane.
“Set,” replied [Lieutenant] Mel Enos.
There was the familiar shudder as one of Tang’s fish headed toward its target. It did not miss. More torpedoes soon followed. Explosions lit the sky as shock waves rocked the Tang.
“They all hit as we aimed ’em, captain,” said Chief Quartermaster Sidney Jones.
O’Kane was not finished. There were still more ships to sink. He quickly prepared a stern shot on another target.
Bill Leibold [the sub’s chief boatswain’s mate] grabbed O’Kane, almost dislocating his shoulder.
“She’s coming in to ram!” shouted Leibold.
Leibold pointed to a Japanese ship which was bearing down on the Tang. O’Kane had not seen it, so focused had he been on the target to the stern. There was no time to dive or fire torpedoes.
“All ahead emergency! Right full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.
The engines roared. Clouds of diesel smoke belched from her exhausts. The Tang moved to the port, cutting across the bow of the approaching ship, the 1,920-ton Wakatake Maru. Japanese sailors on the main deck grabbed rifles and pistols and began to open fire, aiming at the Tang’s bridge party. It was a close-run thing with the Tang avoiding the Wakatake Maru with only yards to spare.
“Clear the bridge!” ordered O’Kane.
Men scrambled down the hatch. Then, just as O’Kane prepared to follow them, he saw an out-of-control freighter. It was headed toward the Wakatake Maru.
“Hold her up!” shouted O’Kane. “Hold her up!”
The Tang’s decks were partly under water. In seconds, she was again fully surfaced.
“Give me a range and mark,” said Mel Enos.
“You don’t need one,” replied O’Kane. “Just fire! You can’t put a torpedo out without hitting this bastard.”
Torpedoes emerged from the stern torpedo tubes, aimed at the Wakatake Maru. They hit just as the out-of-control freighter collided with the Wakatake Maru “with a rending, groaning crash of tortured and distorted steel.” Both ships disappeared for a few seconds in a giant ball of fire, smoke, and showering debris.
It was 1:40 A.M. On the bridge, O’Kane surveyed the devastation. Two torpedoes had hit Wakatake Maru. One had been beautifully targeted at the rear part of the engine room on the port side to inflict maximum damage. It had clearly done so.
Suddenly, the sky was also lit with the muzzle flashes of Japanese deck guns. O’Kane watched in delight as the convoy’s escorts began to fire at each other in panicked confusion.
Wakatake Maru quickly broke in two and, 40 seconds later, dropped below the waves. In less than a minute, the Tang had dispatched 128 men belonging to a salvage unit, 30 crewmen, 11 ship’s gunners, and 7 passengers.
In port, the Tang flew her battle flag. Designed by a crew member, it showed a black panther bursting through a Japanses Rising Sun. Each small Japanese flag indicated an enemy ship sunk by the Tang. (Liebold and DaSilva Families / Courtesy of DaCapo Press)
The Tang then slipped away into the night. Understandably, her crew buzzed with excitement. They had pulled off a truly spectacular attack, arguably the most devastating of the war. The Tang had hit and then sunk all of the convoy’s cargo-carrying ships. She had also caused severe damage to an escort ship in the convoy, which then burned before beaching on the Pescadores. In all, the battle had lasted less than 10 minutes. Once again, Commander Dick O’Kane had proven, in [Radio Technician’s Mate] Floyd Caverly’s words, to be “quite the marksman.”
It was late October 24, 1944, when blips again appeared on the Tang’s surface radar screen. O’Kane ordered the Tang to close on what appeared to be another convoy. Soon, there were many more blips on the radar screen, targets galore. The Tang began her approach. It could possibly be her last given that there were only half a dozen or so torpedoes left.
O’Kane turned to Frank Springer: “Do you think that we’ll have time before daylight to fire from the surface?”
“Yes,” replied Springer. “By the time we get into position it’s going to be just about two o’clock or two ten. We’ll have to fire then or we won’t be able to make it. We’ll be exposed to the surface.”
The Tang maneuvered into position.
“Fire!” ordered O’Kane.
Mark 18 electric torpedoes shot from the Tang, aimed to hit beneath the masts of two freighters and under the main stack of a tanker. O’Kane was at the top of his game. Explosions soon followed, their shock waves spreading across the sea and rocking the Tang slightly.
The Tang continued on the surface. More enemy ships were soon within striking distance. O’Kane ordered his men to set up for stern shots at a tanker and a transport. Torpedoes were fired at both. Before long, there was an ear-splitting explosion; the tanker erupted into a massive fireball. Clearly, she had been loaded to the brim with fuel.
On a WWII recruiting poster, a sailor monitors the diesels aboard a US sub. Submariners spent weeks at sea hunting enemy vessels. In 1944, one of the most effective Americans subs was the USS Tang. (National Archives)
The tanker blazed so brightly that the Tang suddenly seemed to have emerged into daylight. O’Kane and his bridge party looked around. At least one torpedo had hit the transport which was still afloat, dead in the water. Suddenly, Japanese escorts began to concentrate their fire on the Tang. Volleys of machine gun bullets splattered in the sea. It was time to disappear…. The Tang was soon moving away at full speed, around 23 knots, partially hidden by a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Other captains might now have plotted a new course and not looked back. Not Dick O’Kane. At 10,000 yards from the convoy, he slowed the Tang. He was going back for more—to finish off the transport he’d seen dead in the water.
O’Kane ordered his torpedo mechanics to pull the last two torpedoes from their tubes and examine them. With so few left, he wanted to make sure there would be no mistakes. Pete Narowanski, Hayes Trukke, and the other torpedo mechanics carefully checked the Tang ’s last two fish. They then loaded them into forward tubes numbered five and six.
Thirty minutes later, Tang was ready to deliver the coup de grâce to the stricken transport…. The Tang moved forward at six knots, her bow pointing at the transport. There were no escorts in sight.
Floyd Caverly looked at the screen of his SJ radar in the conning tower.
“Range: fifteen hundred yards,” said Caverly.
The submarine crept slowly closer.
Nine hundred yards from the target, O’Kane was ready with his remaining two torpedoes—for all he knew, they were the last he might fire in combat during the war.
“Stand by below,” O’Kane ordered.
“Ready below, captain,” replied Springer.
A small jolt was felt throughout the boat as the next-to-last torpedo was fired….
Now just one torpedo was left. Once it had been fired, the Tang could head back to safety, having completed one of the most destructive patrols of the war.
O’Kane called for a time check. It was 2:30 A.M. on October 25, 1944.
In the conning tower, [Lieutenant] Larry Savadkin operated the torpedo data computer. He pressed a button which set the final firing angle of Tang ’s last torpedo.
“Fire!” ordered O’Kane.
Frank Springer stood a few feet from Savadkin in the conning tower. He pressed the firing plunger. Again, a jolting whoosh as the last torpedo, Number 24, left the Tang. The submarine shuddered as compressed air forced the torpedo from its tube and seawater flooded back into the tube.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski slammed his fist into the palm of his left hand.
“Hot dog, course zero nine zero,” he cried. “Heading for the Golden Gate!”
“Let’s head for the barn,” someone else shouted.
There was a massive explosion as Number 23 torpedo hit its target, sending flames and debris shooting into the sky….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold scanned the waters with his binoculars. He stood next to O’Kane. Suddenly, he saw the last torpedo, Number 24, broach and then begin to porpoise, phosphorescence trailing it. A few seconds later, it made a sharp turn to port and then, unbelievably, began to come about.
“There goes that one! Erratic!” shouted O’Kane.
The last torpedo was now heading like a boomerang, back to its firing point…back toward the Tang. Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps its rudder had jammed or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned.
“Emergency speed!” cried O’Kane.
Below, twenty-year-old Motor Machinist’s Mate Jesse DaSilva had just left his post in the engine room, having decided to get a cup of coffee. He was standing with one foot in the mess. Over the intercom, he could hear the bridge crew react as the torpedo headed back toward the Tang.
“Captain, that’s a circular run!” he heard Leibold say.
“All ahead emergency!” shouted O’Kane. “Right full rudder!”
“Bend them on,” added O’Kane. “Control, just bend them on.”
In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply, knowing the Tang needed all the power she could get if there was to be a chance of saving lives.
The torpedo was now making straight for the 300-foot submarine. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed, their eyes “popping out of their sockets.” The Tang was moving at about 6 knots, 20 less than her final torpedo.
“Left full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.
Bill Leibold watched in stricken silence as the torpedo headed right at them, coming dead-on toward the Tang. Then he lost sight of it as it continued down the port side.
Maybe it will miss. Maybe it will veer away and begin another erratic circle. Maybe the Tang will evade just in time….
In the conning tower, Floyd Caverly waited like the other men for the inevitable.
Surely there is enough time to get out of the way—to get the hell out of here? Surely?
Speed. Speed is all we need…just enough to get out of the way. If only the Tang would just set by the stern and set off like a speedboat.
But the Tang was not a speedboat. She could not avoid the charging torpedo. It hit the Tang ’s stern with a massive explosion somewhere between the maneuvering room and the after torpedo room, killing as many as half the crew instantly and flooding all aft compartments as far forward as the crew’s quarters, midway along the boat.
Caverly was standing looking at a radarscope when it happened. He…thought that the Tang had been snapped in two. The waves of concussion from the explosion made him feel as if he were experiencing a massive earthquake. He did not know which way to step to catch his balance. The deck plates rattled and shook. Lightbulbs went out.
In the conning tower, there was chaos.
“We’ve been hit!” cried Executive Officer Frank Springer.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski found himself flat on his back from the huge explosion. He picked himself up. What happened? There had been no alarm. One moment he had been rejoicing, looking forward to carousing in San Francisco. Now he could feel the Tang sinking. Had the Tang been hit by a Japanese shell?
…[Narowanski] and the other men in the forward torpedo room remained calm. They were well trained and had many years’ experience between them. As they tried to figure out what exactly had happened to the Tang, they scanned the compartment for damage. There was surprisingly little. Then, their training kicked in. They closed the watertight door leading to the next compartment. One of the men, who was still wearing headphones, tried to contact other compartments but without success. Someone else turned on the emergency lights.
[They] were lucky. Unlike men trapped in other compartments, the torpedomen knew they had a way out from theirs—they were a few feet from one of only two escape trunks on the Tang. The other was in the after torpedo room, which was flooded, its occupants either killed instantly by the explosion or now drowned….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold saw a cloud of what looked like black smoke. In fact it was water thrown up from the explosion. He and other men on the bridge felt the boat being wrenched, as if it were being split in half.
A few feet from Leibold, Dick O’Kane watched, aghast, as the tops of the after ballast tanks blew into the air. Water washed across the wooden main decking, around the five-inch main gun, and then toward the aft cigarette deck where Tang’s 40mm gun was positioned, several feet from where O’Kane now stood on the bridge.
“Do we have propulsion?” he then asked, speaking into his bridge phone.
There was no answer.
O’Kane again shouted into the bridge phone.
The men in the conning tower below could hear him. But O’Kane received no reply. The explosion had knocked out the microphone on his bridge phone.
“Radar!” shouted O’Kane. “I want to know how far it is to the closest destroyer and what the course is on that destroyer.”
Caverly picked up his microphone in the conning tower.
“The radar is out of commission,” said Caverly. “I have no bearing or range right now.”
“Radar,” barked O’Kane, “I’m asking for information and I want it now!”
Caverly realized that O’Kane’s microphone was out of action so he stepped over to the hatch and called up: “The radar is out of commission.”
Caverly then gave the Tang ’s last bearing and range, but O’Kane did not hear him. He had stepped away from the hatch.
“I want information, radar!” O’Kane shouted again, desperately.
Frank Springer grabbed Caverly by the nape of the neck and seat of his pants and began to shove him up the hatch.
“Get up there and talk to the skipper!” said Springer.
Caverly climbed up the ladder to the bridge [and]…stepped over toward O’Kane, who was a few feet from Bill Leibold…. Water started to rise up toward the bridge. It had soon covered the aft third of the submarine.
“Close the hatch!” cried O’Kane.
But it was too late. The Tang began to sink, tons of water pouring into the conning tower. The after section of the submarine had flooded….
Caverly knew it was now time for every man to look after himself.
Of the Tang‘s 87 men, only nine survived the sub’s torpedoing and sinking. Four of them, including Caverly and O’Kane, spent the rest of the night—eight hours—treading water. The other five were trapped inside the Tang’s forward torpedo room under 180 feet of water until morning, when they managed to exit and reach the surface. Four other men escaped from the sub (two after the sinking), but succumbed before they could be rescued. The survivors, picked up by a Japanese patrol boat, quickly realized their ordeal had just begun. They would suffer torture, abuse, and privation in prison camps until August 1945, when all nine were liberated by victorious US forces and returned to the States.
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